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Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers

Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers include:

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol, Aspirin-Free Excedrin)
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including ibuprofen -- Motrin and Advil -- or naproxen -- Aleve and Naprosyn 

Both acetaminophen and NSAIDs reduce fever and relieve pain caused by muscle aches and stiffness, but only NSAIDs can also reduce inflammation (swelling and irritation). Acetaminophen and NSAIDs also work differently. NSAIDs relieve pain by reducing the production of prostaglandins, which are hormone-like substances that cause pain. Acetaminophen works on the parts of the brain that receive the "pain messages." NSAIDs are also available in a prescription strength that can be prescribed by your physician.

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Topical pain relievers are also available without a doctor's prescription. These products include creams, lotions, or sprays that are applied to the skin in order to relieve pain from sore muscles and arthritis. Some examples of topical pain relievers include Aspercreme, Ben-Gay, Icy Hot, and Capzasin-P. 

Prescription Pain Relievers

Prescription pain relievers include:

  • Corticosteroids
  • Opioids
  • Antidepressants
  • Anticonvulsants (anti-seizure medications)

What Are Corticosteroids?

Prescription corticosteroids provide relief for inflamed areas of the body by easing swelling, redness, itching and allergic reactions. Corticosteroids can be used to treat allergies, asthma and arthritis. When used to control pain, they are generally given in the form of pills or injections. Examples include: prednisone (Deltasone), prednisolone (Hydeltrasol), and methylprednisolone (Solu-Medrol).

Prescription corticosteroids are strong medicines and may have serious side effects, including:

  • Weight gain
  • Upset stomach
  • Headache
  • Mood changes
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Weakened immune system
  • Thinning of the bones

To minimize these potential side effects, corticosteroids are prescribed in the lowest dose possible for as short of a length of time as needed to relieve the pain. 

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are narcotic pain medications that contain natural, synthetic or semi-synthetic opiates. Opioids are often used for acute pain, such as short-term pain after surgery. Some examples of opioids include:

  • Morphine
  • Fentanyl
  • Oxycodone
  • Codeine

Opioids are effective for severe pain and do not cause bleeding in the stomach or other parts of the body as can some other types of pain relievers. It is rare for people to become addicted to opioids if the drugs are used to treat pain for a short period of time.

Side effects of opioids may include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Itching
  • Breathing problems
  • Addiction
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